Solutions Marketing: What are 5 Key Factors to a Successful Transition from Products to Solutions?

I recently had a conversation with two marketers working for a bio-tech company.  Their challenge sounded very familiar: how to effectively combine their company’s products and services to create solutions that address  their customers’ real needs and opportunities.  As we talked, one of them asked me to list the key things they should know as they embark on the journey to becoming a solutions-focused company.

I described what we’ve learned over the years helping companies make this transition -- the five keys to making a successful transition from being product-focused to offering market-ready customer-centric solutions:

1. Clearly understand why the company wants to move to solutions -- and make sure the reasons are compelling. Companies move to solutions for a variety of reasons.  There are internal drivers such as margin pressures due to product commoditization, or external drivers such as a customer experiencing problems that can only be addressed by an integrated product-service approach.  We’ve seen many companies start down the path to a solutions-based model only to abandon the process once they encounter stiff internal resistance or have a bad quarter or two.  Those who kept going -- and were ultimately successful -- were companies that had a real or perceived “burning platform” that motivated everyone to make the leap.  Without a strong and compelling reason to move forward, many in the organization will not support or embrace an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable future.

2. Make sure processes are in place that facilitate effective internal and external collaboration. The services and products groups within the company need to be able to work together on everything from offer creation to sales strategy.  In addition, deeper collaboration with external partners is also often necessary since they may be needed to complete the technical and delivery requirements of the solution.

3. Anticipate the breadth of internal alignment that will be required to be truly customer-centric. Being a solutions provider requires more than changing the messages on the home page or adding a “Solutions” tab to the navigation bar.  And it’s definitely more than running the sales force through a 2-day training course or revising value propositions.  To make the move away from a product-push strategy to a truly customer-centric organization, everything, from compensation to ordering systems to product development strategies needs to be reviewed and potentially revised.

4. Make sure the sales force “gets it.”  To sell solutions, the sales force must stop pitching features and functions and adopt a consultative, or “solutions”, selling approach.   I’ve also noticed that a slightly different approach, referred to as “provocative selling” in a recent HBR article, is seen as effective in selling solutions.  Whatever you call it, the sales person has to stop presenting what is available and start understanding the customer’s specific needs and problems, then offer a solution or set of solutions that meets that specific need. This is a huge change for a product-focused company and many salespeople won’t be able to change their stripes.

5. Demonstrate success.   Some companies who have decided to move to solutions try to change everything at once – or try to impose a top-down change on the organization by telling them what to do.  Both approaches are doomed to failure. The most successful transitions happen incrementally.  Start with a pilot solution, make sure it is developed and successfully rolled out, then use that success as a "proof point" to motivate other parts of the company to lend their support and resources to the next solution.  Make sure that your first initiatives are very practical and tactical so that it isn’t seen as too broad or high level.   If you start small and show the value of the change, you should start to hear what is now a classic request by the woman in the restaurant in the movie When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what she’s having!”

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